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BEYOND LOCAL: Creating video games can help support recovery from addiction

Game jams are powerful spaces to inspire creativity in disenfranchised communities

This article by Sandra Danilovic, Wilfrid Laurier University, originally appeared on Conversation and is reprinted here with permission.

The opioid epidemic is being driven by more than the sale of illicit drugs, increased opioid prescription, and the pandemic.

Stigma fills the lives of many people living with opioid addiction, exacerbating hopelessness, loss of dignity and shame. There is a common misconception that opioid addiction is a personal moral lapse, but many people abuse opioids to relieve pain.

Individual failure is not the driver of opioid addiction. It is a complex and intertwined set of causes, including poverty, social isolation, disability, and physical and psychological trauma.

I am the lead researcher of an ethically-accepted study examining the practice of developing video games to aid in addiction healing. We hope our work will help break down the stigma of opioid addiction and support those affected.

aspects of the study

The study will provide adults living with or with a history of opioid addiction the tools and resources to tell their story, learn about themselves, build community, and raise awareness of addiction-related stigma while they acquire valuable computer skills at the same time.

We will do this by bringing people together to connect in a physical space and create video games inspired by their stories. We will mentor them and teach them how to create their first game prototype. This includes learning how to tell your story through a video game, creating the graphics and animation, programming and testing the game.

Telling a life story is a profound self-learning exercise, as the storyteller has to explain and clarify his or her decision-making processes in life. In order to render a life story through a digital game, the game maker must tell it computationally through digital code, which also forces him to think creatively and logically.

We plan to host a series of game jams in Ontario cities impacted by the opioid crisis, including Brantford, Hamilton and Toronto.

A game jam is a game-making workshop where a group of people come together to create games over a short period of time, usually between 24 and 72 hours. Game jams are like musical jamming sessions that invite the kind of wild improvisation that most creators love. But they’re also community-building events, fueled by the spirit of collaboration that often overrides game making.

Autobiographical digital games

It might seem counterintuitive to use video games for storytelling given the assumption many have that gamers are all violent and antisocial – a moral panic unsupported by evidence.

Video games have come a long way in the last 10 years. The emergence of autobiographical digital games about illness and health, such as Zoe Quinn’s interactive narration, search for depression; Green, Green and Larsons That dragon, cancer and Anna Anthropys Dys4ia have shaken gaming culture.

Non-traditional game makers — like women and LGBTQ+ designers who don’t fit the typical developer profile — have reimagined video games as powerful art for exploring personal trauma.

Free and easy-to-use software such as line have accelerated a cultural awakening of computer games as a means of expression for marginalized creators. Collectives have also sprung up to organize game jams and support marginalized developers with no design or programming experience—like DMG in Toronto and Pixelles in Montréal.

Game jams have become powerful spaces to stimulate creativity in disenfranchised communities and give them creative agency and voice.

Restore identity and heal wounds

I’ve been doing research on developing games for mental health for eight years. In 2014, I organized my first game jam study for game designers living with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses. The outcome of this study was my doctoral thesis on developing games about illness and disability as rich healing and community practices.

My research has shown that digital game design enables new forms of self-awareness for young people struggling with their mental health. For example, STEM-rich practices like coding employ a mindset called computational thinking. Although controversial in the computer science community, computational thinking allows game makers to cultivate mindfulness, especially when telling a story about themselves.

As game makers model their characters after themselves and create a new self, they must find coherence in their life story that can help them rebuild their identity and heal wounds. When creators present a story as a playable game, it also compels them to play their characters and embody their newly crafted selves.

Making games is an art form that many are unfamiliar with. Unlike other creative practices, game makers must create the rules and laws that govern and shape player behavior. This is a powerful practice that has the potential to aid in opioid addiction recovery.

I hope this approach will encourage policymakers to use creative methods to empower hard-to-reach communities and remove the stigma that is a significant obstacle to solving the opioid crisis.The conversation

Sandra Danilovic, Assistant Professor of Game Design and Development in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Wilfrid Laurier University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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